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Lessons from the Johnson loss



A few weeks before the election, I was talking to a prominent Democrat about the county-executive race. The Democrat was supporting Johnson but didn't think he was his party's strongest candidate. Johnson's biggest handicap, said this Democrat, was the city.

            The Republicans, he said, would hang the city's problems --- crime, schools --- around Johnson's neck.

            Johnson's campaign, as he himself has said, was an uphill battle. But Maggie Brooks' 65-35 margin of victory stunned the Democrats I've talked with.

            Everybody's speculating about the cause of that massive defeat. I figured that taxes might have been a major factor; throughout the campaign, Brooks recited her anti-tax theme like the pro she is. But then I checked the Democrat and Chronicle's reader poll the day after the election. The poll question was "Do you believe MonroeCounty will resort to a property tax hike to help close this year's deficit?"

            Of the 911 readers who had voted by mid-afternoon, 65 percent said "yes," and 35 percent said "no." If these were representative of the people who voted for county exec the day before, most of them were Brooks supporters. (And the reader comments on the D&C website were heavily pro-Brooks.) So you've gotta figure: These folks knew Brooks wasn't telling the truth about taxes --- and they didn't care!

            Several observers have suggested that fear of metropolitan government caused the Johnson loss. Maybe so; heaven knows the Pac-Man ad was powerful.

            And for some voters, race was obviously a factor --- not only Johnson's race but also the race of many Rochester residents: school children, welfare recipients. Some Bob Lonsberry sympathizers have insisted that there was nothing racial about Lonsberry's reference to Johnson as an orangutan. Maybe Lonsberry was naïve. Not so the anonymous City reader who sent me this message: "Send all the monkeys back to Africa."

            And not so the anonymous writer of this comment on the D&C's website late last week: "I didn't vote for Johnson because he wants to raise taxes, he's black, he wants to take over the county like pac man, and he's a Democrat."

I don't believe that race was the motivation for most people who voted for Maggie Brooks. Many of them, I'm sure, simply thought Brooks was the better candidate: that she is experienced, that she shares their values about taxes, that she'll be a "conciliator."

            But what accounts for the landslide?

            My worst fear is that much of the anti-Johnson vote was exactly what my Democratic source predicted: an anti-city vote. That sentiment will be hard to overcome. It's emotional, and it isn't easily influenced by facts. And in the time it takes to overcome it, the community will become more polarized and more segregated, and the city will become poorer.

            If the Brooks vote was an anti-city vote, the landslide says that there is no "Community of Monroe." ("There never was," insists my City colleague Jack Bradigan Spula.)

            The ramifications are enormous, and very troubling. Community leaders continue to talk about the interdependence of city and suburb. But we may have reached the point, in this talent-rich, naturally blessed region, where we are simply a group of isolated communities --- where the majority of residents are content to live in the cocoon of their own village, town, or city neighborhood, thinking and caring little about anyone but their most immediate neighbors.

            The day after the election, I received an anonymous voice mail whose message included the following:

            "The people came out and spoke. We don't want metro government. And we don't want a murderer running MonroeCounty. Johnson's got about 48 murders under his belt that he hasn't done anything about.... This is a Republican town. I don't care about the city. The city's dead, city's done, city's over. Come on out to the suburbs and see what the county is really like."

            What if the majority of suburban voters don't care about the city? What if they don't think the city has any importance to them (as long as its crime stays confined within its limits)? What if they think the city brought its problems on itself? Or what if they simply don't think about the city at all?

            Think what that means.

            For Rochester's poorest residents, it means no regional public support for day care, for preventive services, for health care, for job training. For the city itself, it means no regional public support for city police services, no recognition of the importance of economic development in the city.

            If people become more and more isolated and parochial, more content to find their after-hours recreation and entertainment in their own suburban town, fewer people will be interested in Rochester Philharmonic concerts, fewer people will go to museums, to Geva and the city's wealth of smaller theater companies.

            And frankly, the impact of this kind of parochialism won't be on the city alone. If I live in Pittsford, why, from an isolationist viewpoint, should I care about what happens in Henrietta or Mendon? Why should a resident of Chili care if new development there robs Henrietta of tax base? Why should Victor residents care about the traffic problems their new development creates in Perinton?

            If each of us is content to live in an isolationist community, we may not care that the population of the region isn't growing. We may not even be interested in economic growth, as long as our taxes stay within reason.

            And yet that kind of county, that kind of region, will not grow economically. It will not foster innovation. It will not attract innovative businesses, innovative people. It will be, as I have suggested before, a collection of independent communities who share the same geographic region merely by happenstance.

            And if the isolationists among us think that Greece, or Mendon, or Pittsford can make it on their own, without healthy neighbors and without an enormous increase in taxes, they've got another think coming.

            (Think I'm exaggerating the anti-city sentiment? Note that County Legislator Bill Smith of Pittsford suggests balancing the budget by charging the city for welfare costs of city residents.)

Accounting 101

One of the weirder moments of the campaign was when the Political Action Committee of the Rochester Business Alliance endorsed Maggie Brooks. These are conservative business people, fer Pete's sake. Fiscally responsible, presumably. Intelligent, one hopes. And yet the RBA PAC endorsed a candidate who insists that she can cut taxes, not cut services, not borrow money, and balance the budget!

            In my more whimsical moments, I wonder if Steve Minarik has some threat hanging over Business Alliance CEO Tom Mooney that resulted in such an absurdity. But my more rational self says that the truth is much worse: Mooney et al really believe that the county's on the right track. That it's been on the right track for years. That if there were a better way to run the county, we'd have adopted it.

            This is the Rochester Way of Doing Things. Ignore the facts. Tout our history and our brilliance. Keep doing the same thing, the same way, as businesses and jobs and talented young people flee the region. Stay the course!

            (Are you depressed yet?)

Marching orders

So... can anything be done? Barring a major infusion of revenue, county government will have to cut services. And as the county's budget problems grow, the needs of the neediest will be pitted against the needs of important community institutions: libraries, arts organizations, parks.

            My sermon of the day: It's time for education. And solidarity. And action.

            To leaders of the region's religious community: It's time to exert your moral influence, to become community leaders. Educate your congregations --- about the complex issues that breed poverty and crime, about the interdependence of city and suburbs. Speak at county legislature meetings, write letters, lobby public officials. Get your city congregations talking to your suburban congregations. And start talking to Maggie Brooks. Now.

            To leaders of the Rochester educational community --- city teachers, administrators, school-board members, parent leaders, university educators: Become ambassadors for Rochester's children. Meet with your suburban counterparts. Help them get to know Rochester schools: their successes and their challenges. Educate them about the effects of concentrated poverty. Find ways to replace suburban residents' fear with compassion. And start talking to Maggie Brooks. Now.

            To leaders of city neighborhood and civic organizations: Form coalitions with your suburban counterparts. Find ways to break down the fear and isolation that is destroying this region. Educate them about the city, and help them educate their neighbors. And start talking to Maggie Brooks. Now.

            To leaders of professional organizations, especially those involved in planning, architecture, development, and construction: Become activists for a stronger metropolitan Rochester. Educate yourselves, about the budget, about regional economic development, about sprawl. Educate county legislators. Start pressuring them to think and act regionally. And start talking to Maggie Brooks. Now.

            To leaders of area arts organizations: Band together to push for sufficient funding and the taxes required to provide it --- but not just for the arts. Make a public pledge at the outset: No arts funding without sufficient funding for services for the poor. Hold press conferences. Write your members. Plead the importance of a healthy community, one that meets its residents' human-service needs as it meets their cultural and inspirational needs. And start talking to Maggie Brooks. Now.

            And to the Republicans who once were the heart and soul of a great local party: Get rid of Steve Minarik. Now.

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